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A right royal week, part one: the Garden Party

July 10, 2012

We had a rather exciting few days last week. Her Majesty the Queen was in Scotland for the week, fulfilling her usual busy round of engagements with Prince Philip at her side. My family – and in particular, our six-year-old son – found our week affected by her presence in more ways than one.

It started for us on Tuesday, when my husband and I attended the annual royal Garden Party at the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh. We are lucky enough to be able to go to this every year, as my husband is a member of the Royal Company of Archers, the Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland. Many of the Archers are serving officers or ex-army and would know exactly what to do in a crisis, but their duties are ceremonial, consisting of providing a guard for the Sovereign during her formal engagements in Scotland. Dressed in spiffy dark green uniforms which have barely changed since the 1860s, they have, dare I say it, a distinct air of Gilbert and Sullivan about them. They wear eagle’s feathers in their bonnets and carry long bows when on duty but, oddly, no arrows. I suppose if the Queen were to be rushed by a terrorist (heaven forbid) at the Garden Party, the Royal Company would just have to poke him with the end of a bow, or perhaps tickle him into submission with their feathers.

Members of the Royal Company of Archers competing for the Edinburgh Arrow in The Meadows. Photo from

I am being irreverent. The Archers have a venerable history, are actually expected to know how to shoot (with a bow and arrow of course) and they hold regular archery competitions. Should you want to know more about the Royal Company, you can read about them here.

For me, of course, the perk of my husband’s involvement is an otherwise undeserved invitation to the Garden Party. Usually my husband is on duty, which for him means that he has to do a lot of standing to attention while ignoring the throng of people breathing down his neck for a glimpse of the Queen, and for me means that I drift around the lawns feeling a bit of a spare part. But this year was special. For the first time, we went to the Garden Party together, as he was not called up for duty. As a result it was much more fun and sociable. Once through the police security at the gate, we wandered across the beautiful gardens behind the palace, through the ruins of the medieval abbey that was destroyed at the Reformation, and found a plum spot for royal-watching at the foot of the stairs down which the Queen comes from the palace to the party.

The Palace of Holyrood, Edinburgh. Photo from

Royal-watching is the essential point of the Garden Party, I suppose. Looking at the Queen as she stood on the steps as we sang the National Anthem, and then watching the crowd watching the Queen all afternoon, I was struck by the fact that she has spent almost her entire life being gawped at. For her, it is normal that hundreds of people should be craning their necks to catch a glimpse of her as she chats to a stranger, or standing on tiptoes to peer at her as she has a cup of tea. It is a surreal fishbowl that she lives in, but she swims in it with grace and friendly charm.

Perhaps it helps a little that almost everyone Her Majesty encounters is well-disposed towards her. Certainly at the Garden Party, all the guests are aware of how lucky they are to have been invited and are disposed to enjoy their day. This royal party is the opposite of elitist: guests come from all walks of life and all parts of Scotland and beyond. They have been invited for any number of reasons. Some are serving in the armed forces, many are carers, charity workers or people who have made some other contribution to their community. Some are hangers-on like me, partners of those on duty in one capacity or another. Some – as I discovered in conversation with a lady from Motherwell at last year’s party – are winners in the office ballot of tickets provided for local council workers, and have come up in a coach-load for a grand day out.

In addition to the strange fascination of seeing the Queen, people-watching, or rather dress-watching, at the Garden Party is endlessly entertaining. There are ladies in pearls and the sort of restrained tailoring that whispers of old money. There are large girls clumping about in platform shoes with skirts that barely cover their bottoms. There are top hats, peaked caps and tiny explosions of feathers on heads.  There are uniforms from every part of the Commonwealth, Asian women in elegant embroidered saris, bishops in purple, Africans in floor length robes and of course Scotsmen in kilts of every tartan known to weavers. If only we were allowed to take photos!

And to cap it all, there’s the tea. I don’t know how they do it, but every year the catering staff at the Palace provide a truly royal feast for hundreds of guests. (How do they manage to make every cup of tea taste freshly brewed when they are serving frantically all afternoon? I wish I knew: then the teas I provide for our guided tours at Castle Beastie might be rather better!) For non tea drinkers, there are glasses of elderflower cordial or good strong iced coffee. The food is irresistible: tiny fresh scones with dollops of strawberry jam, for example; slivers of home-made ginger cake, local ice cream, weeny coffee eclairs bursting with cream and – naturally – the most delicious little cucumber sandwiches. The secret of the sandwiches is fresh mint leaves. White bread cut into fingers, lightly buttered, filled with peeled cucumber slivers and scattered with mint. Cut off the crusts and you have a sandwich fit for the Queen, and just the thing to fill a little gap on a humid afternoon.

All in all, then, it is a treat to be invited to a royal Garden Party, especially for a hanger-on. My mother always used to tell me that I’d never be invited to tea with the Queen if I didn’t learn good table manners. I suppose her warning worked! My boys, especially the younger one, are very envious of their parents going off to the Garden Party every year (children are not allowed), so I am using the same ruse on them. Perhaps one day – if they remember to say please and thank you and to keep their elbows off the table – they might receive an invitation of their very own to tea with the Queen.

Funnily enough, though… the very next day after the Garden Party, our younger son did receive a rather special letter in the post. It came in a large cream envelope, and it was post-marked ‘EiiR, Buckingham Palace, London’. I’ll tell you all about that in the next chapter of our right royal week.

tight-lipped with excitement

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2012 9:33 pm

    Thank you for an “inside view”! I’ve heard lots about garden parties but have never been myself. I’ve always been intrigued what food was served! (That’s me and my fetish for cake – LOL!). Sounds like you had a lovely time and I’m glad you could go round together. You are also very good at “cliff-hangers”…you now have me eager to read your next post (well OK MORE eager to read your next post) – to hear what Her Majesty had to say to your wee boy.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 10, 2012 11:08 pm

      I’m with you Sian, a hostess stands or falls by the quality of her cake! So it’s rather reassuring that the Queen serves such exquisite tea and cake at her parties. Guess I’d better get working on the next installment now… 😉

  2. July 10, 2012 10:02 pm

    Thank you so much for giving this “rebel” a glimpse into the life of the Royals in Scotland. Delightful!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 10, 2012 11:09 pm

      It’s a pleasure, Mary. Rather a different tea party from the Boston one, but arguably more fun! 🙂

      • July 10, 2012 11:21 pm

        I guess that depends on your point of view. LOL (My husband absolutely HOWLED when he read your reply.)

  3. hmunro permalink
    July 10, 2012 11:47 pm

    Wonderful, wonderful post! I felt as if I’d been right there with you. And I loved your behind-the-scenes observations — such as being struck by the fact that the Queen has spent her entire life being gawped at. Another classic DB post! Oh, and by the by … thanks for the reminder to keep my elbows off the table! 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 11, 2012 12:23 pm

      Aw, thank you Heather. I’ll let Her Majesty know that you have excellent table manners. 😉

      • hmunro permalink
        July 11, 2012 3:19 pm


  4. Eva Jane Johnston permalink
    July 10, 2012 11:59 pm

    What a lovely day you enjoyed. This day would certainly fill my memory. Mary Zelle sends your blog to me from time to time and I love it. My twin sister and I are of Clan Sutherland and I have been to Scotland only once. Once was not enough. Thank you for sharing your day with us!

    Eva Jane Johnston

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 11, 2012 12:26 pm

      Hello, Eva Jane, and thank you for taking the time to write. I’m glad that you made it to Scotland once, anyway – and of course to Dancing Beastie!

  5. Jo Woolf permalink
    July 11, 2012 8:22 am

    Lovely descriptions of what must have been a memorable day – the dainty little sandwiches and cakes sound delicious. I have a long-standing admiration of the Queen, and her dignity, poise and charm. Ohh, the envelope looks exciting! Wonder if I can guess…?

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 11, 2012 12:28 pm

      Apparently, visitors to the Garden Parties scoff an average of eight things each! In our defence – though I didn’t manage that many myself – everything is very teeny, I suppose because you have to eat them standing up and juggling a teacup.

  6. July 11, 2012 11:15 am

    I have my elbows on the table as I read this on my screen, dreaming… but I am not eating, so I guess it is all good!
    I have never much seen the point of cucumber sandwiches, though I did start making cucumber water when it got so unbearably hot last week and found it most refreshing.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 11, 2012 12:31 pm

      Well there you go, I think that’s the point of cucumber sandwiches, though you are not the only person to think them the nadir of tweeness. Cucumber is amazingly refreshing on a sticky day, plus it doesn’t fill you up too much to enjoy dinner later. Cucumber water sounds a really good idea in the heat. I must remember it if ever the sun comes out again in soggy Scotland!

  7. Toffeeapple permalink
    July 11, 2012 2:54 pm

    What a super post, I did enjoy it. The uniform of the Archers looks very elegant, as do the long-bows.

    I enjoy cucumber sandwiches, they remind me of my childhood. Did you eat cake, if so what sort was it?

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 12, 2012 5:16 pm

      Thanks, Toffee Apple! I didn’t try the cake this year, but I remember that last year’s ginger cake was very good. Quite a light sponge, not a sticky one. I’m a sucker for eclairs though: I had one but could happily have scoffed half a dozen! 🙂

  8. July 11, 2012 8:41 pm

    Sounds like a thoroughly good day out, and relaxing for your husband not to be on duty. Did it rain? I can’t remember what the weather was like on Garden Party Day this year.
    I do remember that I FROZE at the only Holyrood garden party I’ve been to. I would imaging old hands like you put on their thermals.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 12, 2012 5:18 pm

      We were amazingly lucky this year. It was quite still and humid, and the threatening showers held off until after the party. It’s not easy to know what to wear. One year I was frozen too. You can’t exactly go in wellies and an anorak!

  9. July 12, 2012 5:12 pm

    I, too, am intrigued to know how they manage to make so much tea so well. The delicacies sound wonderful and I think I’d have found it very difficult not to take photos of the tiny sandwiches, etc. Do they frisk you for cameras as you go in? I agree that it must be very odd to be gawped at so much, but then I suppose from infanthood the Queen has never known anything else.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 12, 2012 5:22 pm

      Hello Lorna, thank you for visiting. Of course, this post would be of ‘professional’ interest to Tea Room Delights! 🙂
      I did see some people taking surreptitious photos, but you are told strictly not to bring cameras. I think it’s a bit naughty really to flout your hostess’s wishes, much though I longed to take pictures. Even the Queen – used to it from childhood, as you say – must get fed up of flashes going off in her face!

  10. July 15, 2012 8:11 pm

    Oh, mint on cucumber sandwiches! What a wonderful idea, DB. I so enjoyed this post and felt as though I’d been there with you, which is a good thing, as it’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to a Royal Garden Party 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 19, 2012 4:04 pm

      There are always plenty of members of the clergy there, so don’t give up hope just yet! One year I bumped into my old childhood minister there.

      Yes, the mint – an inspired idea. I can see that the Queen is starting a new trend via DB’s reportage of royal sandwich-making!

  11. Margaret Lambert permalink
    July 16, 2012 10:55 am

    A marvelous post, DB! I enjoyed your descriptions which are both informative and deliciously humorous- the delectable food in miniscule portions, “tiny explosions” on heads, and archers without arrows. I do see that it is all carefully planned and choreographed so that with the costumes and setting it might be a little like playing a part in an opera, while balancing a plate and teacup!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 19, 2012 4:08 pm

      What a pleasing observation, Margaret: you are quite right, I suppose it is like a play or opera of a sort. Definitely more Gilbert & Sullivan than Pinter, I’d say. 😉

  12. July 16, 2012 9:31 pm

    Oh thanks for the tiny peek. It sounds delightful ( and I do agree about the politeness of not taking pictures)
    I do believe the Archers would have no problem leaping in to protect the Queen – probably not with the arrows. The Company does have a long honorable tradition in history and in literature. Very impressive to see them for real there.
    Do the men have their own bows? Making them used to require great skill – like making Japanese swords.
    Oh, I’ve forgotten what my Grandmother always said about garden teas and gloves. Are they worn? And do you remove them when taking tea?
    Sorry – so many questions. But it’s fascinating. You make it all so human as well as “royal”
    Can’t wait to discover what’s in that envelope!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      July 19, 2012 4:15 pm

      Thanks for your interesting notes, Philosopher Mouse. The Archers do have their own bows. My husband inherited his from his father, so I don’t know the history of its making.

      Rather sadly, nobody wears gloves these days except the Queen. I think it would be rather nice to wear white gloves – dresses with bracelet-length sleeves always look a little wrong without them, I think – but clearly I am in a minority of one. (I have some exquisite white kid gloves of my grandmother’s which I never have the opportunity to wear.) I’m afraid I didn’t see if the Queen removes them for tea! I’d have thought so, though: you are supposed to remove gloves before eating, so as not to get them dirty.

      Sorry about the delay in writing about the envelope – hope to catch up very soon!


  1. A red letter day: part two of a right royal week « Dancing Beastie

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